It took all summer, but here in its closing week the Muny is finally telling a story about real people experiencing real emotions. Up till now, we've been mostly entertained (and supremely entertained) by escapist fare featuring animated characters, paper-thin characters and sometimes downright silly characters. But The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein's resplendent 1951 East vs. West culture clash, touches and affects us with a nuanced "opposites attract" love story that never once mentions the word "love." Praise Buddah!
For more than half a century, the family-friendly Muny has been the optimum venue for staging the uplifting musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. No other city in America has enjoyed such an ongoing rapport with these two composers. Beginning with the Muny's first Carousel in 1950, St. Louisans have been gifted with more than 50 Forest Park productions of Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. Surprisingly, perhaps, The King and I is the Muny's most-staged R&H musical; this is the twelfth rendition. Yet it matters not how many times in the past you've been charmed by "The March of the Siamese Children" or astonished by "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, as directed this week by Rob Ruggiero, the constant jousting between the two title characters makes the evening feel spontaneous. Even repeat viewers might feel as if they're seeing The King and I for the first time.
It's all a matter of balance. What works best here is the see-saw sparring between the imperious yet primitive King of Siam and the lowly yet more worldly Mrs. Anna, who in the early 1860s has arrived from Great Britain to be governess to the King's children. Laura Michelle Kelly's Mrs. Anna and Kevin Gray's King feed off each other. It's as if each actor is a furnace that grows even hotter when the other performer is near.
It's easy to see why Laura Michelle Kelly is one of the most in-demand musical-theater actresses in England. Her alabaster beauty helps to tell the story; this is a Mrs. Anna who needs to be loved. When, early in Act One, Kelly sings the classic "Hello, Young Lovers," she takes us on a journey in which, by song's end, the widowed governess has rediscovered yearnings that she has repressed for too long. In her huge hoop skirts, Kelly veritably flows across the vast Muny stage like silk personified.
By compelling contrast, Kevin Gray's King is locked into an austere staccato. Without losing the King's bristling authority, Gray has restored some of the character's humanity. Here, the King's solo "A Puzzlement" becomes less of a statement and more of a question. Forget bald. This King has more hair on his head than Mrs. Anna — and in Act One when it hangs loose, Gray knows how to use it to full effect. He is in total control of his body: extended fingers, angled arms. Yet there is nothing technical about Gray's work, for he is painting in broad strokes. He presents us with a majestic study in power — the power of authority, but also sexual power.
Late in Act Two, when the King unclenches his fist long enough to put his arm around Mrs. Anna's waist, you can almost hear the collective intake of breath from 9,000 people in the audience. Even if you're seeing the show for the first time, you know what's coming — something forbidden, something wonderful — and yet, anything can happen. "Come," the King commands, and still we don't breathe. As the music (played with soaring confidence by the Muny orchestra) swells, the evening climaxes in a burst of unspoken romance as two unlikely lovers polka together through "Shall We Dance?" a nigh-perfect theater moment (that might be even more perfect if the palace's intriguing scenic design didn't contain several platforms that seem to hamper movement).
From that dance to the evening's finale, The King and I is a torrent of swirling emotions that build to a poignant denouement when the King must confront his mortality. In the final scene, the unexpected weariness in Gray's strained voice is chilling. "If you are King," he definitively tells his son, who is about to ascend to the throne, "you are King."
Kevin Gray is King. Definitively.
It may sound heretical to say so, but when Kelly and Gray are not onstage, The King and I begins to show its age. Despite lovely songs like "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed," the secondary plot about a secret love between one of the King's concubines and an emissary from Burma (designed to parallel the King's forbidden love for Mrs. Anna) now feels underwritten. And I wish that just once someone could figure out how to stage the opening scene, which occurs on the deck of a moving ship, so that the ship actually appears to be moving.
But this is no time to carp, especially not about a brisk, well-paced King and I that runs a blessed twenty minutes shorter than the Muny's last version in 2006. Fledgling Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson's debut summer is ending on a triumphant note. Isaacson and his team have knocked this season out of the park, an accomplishment for which all Munygoers should praise Buddah — and the theater gods, too.